A little way into a conversation with your mother, you will inevitably ask the polite question, ‘What’s the news from home?’ This will doubtless be answered with a stream of tales involving people you don’t know (‘Paul and Carol. YOU remember Paul and Carol, they came to your christening’) and incidents that make local news look positively thrilling (‘?you see, she thought she’d lost the jam jar, but actually it was on the shelf the whole time!’)
However, what has lately begun to concern me is that slipped in among the everyday tales of friends and neighbours there will often be a sensational story, mentioned with terrifying casualness ? ‘Isn’t it awful about Kathy and the rape?’ Kathy? Who’s Kathy? Neighbour? Distant relation? Teacher at one our old schools? ‘Kathy, you know, used to be married to Sid.’ Nope, no idea. Ah well, moving on. Where did it happen? Somewhere in London? ‘No, no, in Ambridge.’ Ambridge? Where?? Ah. Is this Kathy from The Archers, by any chance?
The gripping radio soap (‘It’s not a soap!’) has become such an intrinsic part of my mother’s day that the lives of its characters are as real to her as the lives of friends and family members, and almost as (OK, sometimes more) important. Waiting for Alice to receive her exam results is as tense as waiting for mine and my brother’s, and Christmas day only really begins when the assorted Ambridge residents have lustily sung carols in church, opened presents, taken strolls through frost-speckled lanes, and solved a few murders, slept with their brother’s wives and/or started a gambling addiction.
Is this obsession a positive influence or a worrying mania? Certainly, The Archers is renowned for calling attention to rural issues, such as GM crops and the foot-and-mouth crisis, or more specifically to the rural viewpoint on such issues, which a London listening audience might not be aware of ? and so remains true to its roots as a Ministry of Agriculture educational programme.
The show also taps into current rural conundrums with uncanny accuracy; for example, the recent debate over removing the pews from the village church so that it can be used for a variety of functions is one that we had in our village in Wiltshire a few months ago. The Archers also echoes, or sometimes influences, Middle England’s thinking on social changes, such as the introduction of civil partnerships, expressing more conservative views and gently challenging them.
However, none of this really excuses referring to Shula, Elizabeth, Kenton and the gang as though they were real people, and for all its social and rural credentials, The Archers’ popularity is not really due to the tense storylines involving lambing and crop yields, but to the more racy plots, such as Ruth teetering on the brink of a D. H. Lawrence-esque affair with herdsman Sam during the show’s 15,000th episode. Such melodrama does not prevent my mother from treating the characters’ exploits with utter seriousness, and repeating them back to us as though they are real events.
And it’s not just my mother who is so quick to believe that The Archers is more documentary than soap. The fansite ‘Archers Anarchists’ proudly declares that ‘The Archers are real ? there is no cast’, and campaigns against the BBC ‘parading a bunch of misguided souls described as “the cast”‘ and preposterously publishing photographs ‘purporting to be?of Ambridge’s residents’.
I encountered similar indignation when presenting my mother with an Archers book containing pictures of the cast ? ‘That’s not what David looks like!’ came her anguished cry. Even worse, cast members (apologies, the REAL residents of Ambridge) have dared to crop up in Bad Girls, Northanger Abbey and White Teeth, among others, with Tamsin Grieg, who plays farmer Debbie, selfishly making a successful career as a comedy actress with hits like Black Books and Green Wing, so challenging the firm belief of many listeners that Debbie is really tending to a farm in Hungary during her long periods of absence.
This overwhelming obsession of course extends to listening to the programme itself, during which complete silence must be maintained. Journeys are carefully timed so that the episode is on either before or after the dash from car to house, and I have a sneaking suspicion that if I called my mother from the scene of a terrible accident at 7:10pm, clutching a severed limb and choking out my story between wracking sobs, I might be told to call back in five minutes.
Then of course there is the Sunday omnibus, allowing devout listeners, or those careless enough to miss the episodes during the week, to get their fill of Archers drama, plus Listen Again, which has initiated otherwise technophobic Radio 4 listeners into the new delights of (gasp!) radio via the internet. In addition, my mother started bombarding me with the daily Archers synopsis when I went away to university, lest student life not include listening to the exploits of Britain’s beloved rural family.
I suppose there is no need to start panicking quite yet; in all fairness, my mother can usually distinguish between real life and Ambridge when really pushed. But if she starts thinking about altering her will in favour of one of the hard done by Grundies, then it might be time to worry?